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Right Turn
Posted at 05:35 PM ET, 05/13/2011

McCain staffers respond to Right Turn

After my post this morning concerning Sen. John McCain’s op-ed on enhanced interrogation techniques, two aides contacted me with a variety of concerns, two of which I think merit further consideration.

First, they objected strenuously to the parenthetical in this sentence:

They so detest the thought of the U.S. applying harsh interrogation techniques that they have convinced themselves that they don’t work. For if they did, the argument would have to shift to “even though we were able to secure information that saves American lives, we shouldn’t do it.” That’s consistent, but it’s an undesirable formulation (not to mention one that the vast majority of Americans reject).

As a starting point, the post was not about polling and the reference to popular opinion in such a fleeting fashion did not warrant a full discussion of polling. Nevertheless,the McCain aides were very concerned that I had not mentioned a recent poll PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey conducted by Public Religion Research Institute. I admit I am not familiar with this polling outfit and do not know its methodology or the sort of sample used. But even in this poll it is very close. “ Nearly half (49%) of Americans agree that the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information is never justified, compared to 43% who disagree.” (Greg Sargent has some additional breakdown of the numbers.)

What I am familiar with is the plethora of data from national polling surveys that show Americans do support the use of harsh methods to extract key information from terrorists. Another Post commentator, Marc Thiessen, has done the most extensive work I know of on polling (a summary of which can be found here). His conclusion: “Americans are with” those who favor use of these techniques in some circumstances. In any event, I am not sure what difference polling makes. McCain’s argument isn’t based on whether use of EITs is popular. The issues are a factual and moral one — what did EITs accomplish and should we use them?

The McCain staffers also took exception to my objection to this assertion by McCain: “Much of this debate is a definitional one: whether any or all of these methods constitute torture. I believe some of them do, especially waterboarding, which is a mock execution and thus an exquisite form of torture.” [emphasis added] I had argued, “In the detailed directions and limitations set out by Office of Legal Counsel lawyers including Steven Bradbury’s May 10, 2005 and May 30, 2005 memos, it is clear that there was no effort to suggest to the detainees they might die. To the contrary, elaborate procedures and medical personnel were in place to assure they would not suffer ‘severe mental or physical distress.’”

One McCain adviser suggested to me that McCain had been briefed and knew better what had gone on than outside analysts did. To be clear, there has never been in the public record any evidence that there were “Deer Hunter”-style sessions in which interrogators suggested these detainees would die. I asked McCain’s staff for more precise information but none was provided.

Perhaps this is a definitional question. In a subsequent e-mail one staffer said McCain thinks waterboarding is the same as a mock execution because “he is made to believe he is drowning” and that this is the same, although longer, than putting a bullet in a chamber and putting it to the subject’s head. McCain is certainly entitled to that view, but the suggestion that CIA agents engineered a scene to convince suspects that they were dying ( the garden-variety understanding of the term) is not warranted by any facts in the public record.

As far as the rest of us know, the procedure created a drowning sensation to the suspects, although the CIA agents and the medical personnel in no way communicated that the purpose of the session was to kill them. The evidence that we have seen, however, is that CIA agents explained the procedure and medical personnel were present. (Or in the parlance of the anti-torture statute then in effect, the CIA officials were not making “the threat of imminent death.”)

As the saying goes, everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts. If McCain thinks the former attorney general, some members of Congress, the former counterterrorism center chief Jose Rodriquez and the current CIA director have it wrong, perhaps the best course is to have a full hearing on the topic. My colleague Greg Sargent and I have suggested exactly that. Perhaps McCain would join some of his colleagues in demanding a full vetting of the facts regarding EITs in conjunction with the upcoming confirmation hearings for CIA director and secretary of defense.

By  |  05:35 PM ET, 05/13/2011

 
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